Tuesday 25th January should have been Up Helly Aa but for the second year in a row it has been cancelled due to the pandemic. In fact, the whole Fire Festival season has been cancelled this year.
Up Helly Aa is a massive event on the calendar of many Shetlanders. It draws in crowds of locals and visitors alike and brings a lot of good times and happy memories.
I was recently asked to put together a video about Up Helly Aa for the Scottish Tourist Guides Association. They are highlighting a variety of stories from all over Scotland as part of Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022. The one thing we know how to do as tourist guides is tell a good story! For stories from all over Scotland, check out the webpage
For the video of Lerwick Up Helly Aa, I caught up with ex-Jarl, Lyall Gair who was the Guizer Jarl in 2017 and has just recently qualified as a Green Badge Tourist Guide for Shetland. You will find many excellent videos about Up Helly Aa from the visitor’s perspective, including Promote Shetland’s “A-Z of Up Helly Aa”
However, I wanted to do something slightly different by telling you about Up Helly Aa from a Jarl’s point of view.
For a Jarl, it’s not just one day, it’s years and years of planning, saving and hard work.
The Guizer Jarl is elected to a special committee about 13-15 years ahead of his big day. The years leading up to his day, he is heavily involved with all the preparations that go on behind the scenes for Up Helly Aa.
As soon as one Up Helly Aa finishes, the next Guizer Jarl finally gets to start making his own suits, helmets, shields, axes ready for the following year. A Galley (Viking longship) will be built by the Galley Boys and the Jarl decides on the name and colours of the galley.
On the day itself, the Jarl and his squad of Vikings (the Jarl squad) are up before the crack of dawn to start their day of parades/processions, civil receptions, visits to local primary schools and care homes and various other public buildings.
At night, the Jarl squad is joined by almost 1,000 other men all dressed in various outfits, including men dressed as women. The squad will have a theme for the night and their fancy dress will relate to the act they will perform later that evening.
The squads will parade about the streets of Lerwick carrying burning torches and will be followed by the galley. The galley will be pulled into a park, where the guizers all through their burning torches into the galley to set it alight.
You might think that this marks the end of the night but it’s really only the beginning. The squads aren’t the only ones who have been busy. The hosts and hostesses of the 11 halls have prepared a spectacular evening of food and dancing, ready for their guests and the visiting squads. Each squad takes it in turn to visit each of the halls, have a dance, have something to eat and drink and perform their squad’s act. They continue doing that until the wee hours of the next morning.
Trying to describe Up Helly Aa to people is not an easy thing to do as where else in the world can you have 1,000 men carrying burning torches through the streets of a small town and then setting fire to a big wooden boat in a children’s playpark, before partying until dawn?!?!
It really needs to be seen to be believed and we are all hoping that we will be able to share this incredible event with you next year in person.
Have a look at the video on our YouTube channel and I would love it if you would subscribe while you are there. Click here